Joel Walker

  • Associate Professor
  • Jon Bridgman Endowed Professor

Ph.D. Princeton University, 1998.

Fields: Late Antiquity, Ancient World, Middle East, Islamic World
Phone: 206-616-1972
Office: SMI 004 | Office Hours: M 3:00-4:00 (Suzzallo cafe); T 12:00-1:00 (Smith 0
Curriculum Vitae:

I am a historian of ancient and early medieval Eurasia, focusing on the period known as late antiquity, extending from the Roman Empire to the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate.  The broad parameters of late antiquity have always appealed to me, since they allow me to combine some of my earliest and most abiding interests: the history and archaeology of the Classical world; early Christianity to ca. 600 CE; and the Islamic world.  My undergraduate teaching includes courses on the history of the ancient world, late antiquity, and Byzantium, as well as seminars on ancient/medieval Jerusalem and animal-human relations in world history.  My graduate seminars have explored these same general areas, though with more emphasis on the Middle East.  In addition to my position in the History Department since 1997, I have been an active member of the University of Washington’s Comparative Religion Program and its Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization.  Since 2011, I have served as the director of the University of Washington’s Program in Persian and Iranian Studies.

As a scholar, I am best known as a historian of the late antique Middle East.  My first book, The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq (University of CA Press, 2006) uses a martyr legend from seventh-century, northern Iraq to elucidate the cultural history of Christianity in the Sasanian Empire (224-651).  My analysis shows how Christians in late antique Iraq forged their identity in dialogue with the social and intellectual traditions of Iran, Syria, and the Greco-Roman world.  Though little known today, this Nestorian or East-Syrian church once spanned large stretches of Eurasia.  Most of my articles have investigated this Nestorian tradition, tackling themes arising from my study of East-Syrian texts and monuments.  In a long article in the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (2012), entitled “From Nisibis to Xi‘an: The Church of the East in Late Antique Eurasia,” I provide an overview of the Nestorian tradition that highlights its regional, ethnic, and linguistic diversity.  My work on the Church of the East has also opened rewarding opportunities to review new and forthcoming work in the fields of Syriac, Sasanian, and late antique studies, and to lecture at some of the world’s leading universities and research institutes.

My current book project, Jewel of the Palace and the Soul: Pearls in the Arts, Economy, and Imagination of the Late Antique World, uses a single type of material to illuminate patterns of interaction and exchange across the entire late antique world.  Harvested from the warm, shallow waters of the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the coasts of southern India, pearls became visible markers of elite status in the empires of both Rome and Iran.  They captured the imagination of Greco-Roman women, who wore them on their ears, necks, and hair, and of Persian elites, who told stories about great pearls won and lost by kings.  They sparked the imagination of Jewish and Christian writers (i.e., the “pearly gates” of the heavenly Jerusalem) and appear prominently in the mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque at Damascus.  The book’s scope and structure reinforce an argument I have made elsewhere about the importance of integrating the Middle East into our study of the late antique world.

At the undergraduate level, I take a similar approach to my teaching of the “Ancient World,” a 10-week survey of the history of western Eurasia from the Paleolithic era to the eve of late antiquity.  We begin with Neanderthals and linger in the Ancient Near East (Gilgamesh, mummies, et al.) before turning to Homer, the Parthenon, and Pompeii.  The course also gives attention to people and regions marginalized in traditional “Western Civ.” surveys, such as Nubians, Persians, and Arabs.  This approach reflects my longstanding fascination with the peripheries of the Classical world, especially the great eastern arc extending from the Black Sea and the Caucasus in the north to Arabia and Ethiopia in the south.  I hope in the near future to develop a course on the empires of ancient and late antique Iran.

At the graduate level, I have had the privilege of teaching an extraordinary range of students in ancient, medieval, and Islamic history.  You can find a full list of their thesis titles here.  Most have come from History, Comparative Religion, and Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, but students interested in graduate study at the University of Washington should also investigate the faculty and resources associated with the Middle East Center, the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, and the Department of Classics.   Over the last fifteen years, I have enjoyed working with graduate students from all of these units.  I attach below the syllabi from my most recent undergraduate and graduate courses.

You can view or download copies of many of my articles and reviews from

Undergraduate courses:

The Ancient World (autumn quarter)

The World of Late Antiquity (usually, spring quarter)

Jerusalem and the Holy Land: From King David to the Crusades (junior seminar)

Bull of Heaven and Earth: Animal-Human Relations from Paleolithic Art to the Chicago Stockyards (this version taught for the University Honors program)

Recent graduate seminars

Jerusalem: From King David to the Dome of the Rock (winter, 2013)

Christian Communities of the Middle East (winter, 2012)

Splendid Adornment: Gems and Jewelry in the Roman and Late Antique World (spring, 2011)

Introduction to the Roman Near East (2005, 2007, autumn, 2010)